Popping Pills a Popular Way to Boost Brain Power

60 Minutes: Among Upper Classes, 50-60 Percent Using ADD/ADHD Drugs Ritalin, Adderall

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If there were a drug that would make you smarter, would you take it? Today an increasing number of healthy people are using drugs without a prescription as a way to improve their mental function.

It's called neuroenhancement and if you want to find someone who's trying it out, just visit a college campus. That's where a surprising number of students are turning to drugs like Adderall and Ritalin, originally developed to treat attention disorders, to boost their brain power and help them make the grade.

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"How common is it to see friends just poppin' pills during finals?" correspondent Katie Couric asked a group of students.

"It's the norm. For sure," a student replied.

"Do you actually see them popping pills, or do they just say, 'I just had an Adderall so I'm ready to go?'" Couric asked.

"Either or," another student replied.

"I mean, if you're in the library you might see someone taking one or, you know, someone will come out and be like, 'Oh, I just took an Adderall and I just finished my five page paper in three hours,'" another student added.

These students are among the nearly 20,000 undergraduates at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. They range from a sophomore to a recent graduate but they all agree taking Adderall is common practice on campus when students need to pull an all-nighter to churn out a paper or cram for an exam.

"Everybody's trying to get an edge. And I mean, and if you can take a pill that will help you study all night to get that grade you need, I mean, a lotta people don't see why they wouldn't do it," a student explained.

Adderall is an amphetamine that came on the market in 1996. Along with Ritalin, another stimulant, it's prescribed to increase mental focus in people with attention disorders.

"I've taken them to study for tests and write papers and things like that. I mean, I've never even been tested for ADD but they do work," Lauren, a junior, told Couric.

She was the only student who told us she has taken the drug without a prescription. "If I've taken it, I can stay awake and I feel productive, I want to be doing what I'm doing," Lauren said.

"I understand that it can make boring work actually more interesting," Couric remarked.

"If I'm not on Adderall I'll read something and I'm not really interested at all, you're just trying to keep yourself focused, but then, you take an Adderall and you all of the sudden are just totally consumed in what you're doing," she explained.

"Does anyone think, though, it makes them have a better grasp or understanding of the material?" Couric asked the students.

"I'd say it's more…it makes you more detail oriented than anything else. If you're detail oriented and you're focused, everything becomes a lot easier to understand than when you're not on it," a student replied.

But is there science to back up their claims?

At the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York, psychiatrist Nora Volkow is testing stimulants - in this case Ritalin - on a subject who's sleep-deprived, similar to a college student who's been up all night studying.

Dr. Volkow's study shows that Ritalin works in a healthy brain the same way it does in the brain of someone with an attention disorder. In areas of the brain, stimulants trigger an increase of the chemical dopamine.

Asked what dopamine exactly does, Volkow said, "Dopamine is like a messenger. It activates the rest of the cells in the brain to pay attention."

"They make you more alert, focused, interested, motivated," she explained.